Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Frederick W. Knobloch, ed., Biblical Translation in Context (Studies and Texts in Jewish History and Culture 10; Bethesda, MD: University of Maryland Press, 2002).  Pp. xiii + 223  Cloth, US$35.00.  ISBN 1883053-40-4.

This volume is a collection of thirteen essays discussing the role that societies have on the translations of the Bible that they produce. It began as a conference held at the University of Maryland, College Park, on April 26, 1998, and most of the papers included in the volume were presented at that time.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part 1, two essays discussing the Bible in the Ancient World are included. The first, by Benjamin G. Wright III entitled “The Jewish Scriptures in Greek: The Septuagint in the Context of Ancient Translation Activity," discusses the role of translators in the ancient world. The second, by William Adler entitled “What the Hebrews Say: Translation, Authority, and the Story of Susanna and the Elders,” provides an analysis of why the story of Susanna failed to be included in the Jewish Bible, and the processes that led to the decision to exclude it. Part 2 comprises eight studies on the relationship between Scripture and the communities that translate it. They include: “How Jews Translate the Bible” by Frederick E. Greenspahn, “’Their Faces Shine with the Brightness of the Firmament’” by Steven Fine, “Between Religion and Culture” by Abigail E. Gillman, “Top Dollar, Bottom Line?” by Leonard Greenspoon, “Text, Translation, Commentary” by Adele Berlin, “’Lost in the Translation’” by Magdalena Teter, “The New American Bible” by Deirdre Dempsey, and “Accuracy and Readability” by Tremper Longman III. Finally, Part 3 offers three studies on using the Bible in the classroom and translation issues in that context. Here we have “The Literary Approach to the Bible and Finding a Good Translation” by Gary A. Rendsburg, “The Problem of Facile Translations’ by Paul R. Raabe, and “Translation and Mimesis” by Michael V. Fox.

 These essays provide us a very timely look at several critical issues that we need to keep in mind when we consider biblical translation. In this post-modern era, in which we continually grow more aware of the degree to which our own perspectives, views, and concerns, color and shape our understanding of the Bible and its message(s), this volume brings to bear this same awareness to the very act of translating the Bible. It reminds us pointedly that translations of the Bible, whether ancient or modern, are not made in a social/cultural/theological/political vacuum and are shaped, even dominated, by the concerns and views of the translators themselves. As Longman notes, “scholarly neutrality has appropriately been revealed as a myth” (p. 165).

 The contributors make several very salient points. First, translation itself is subjective. As noted in the preface, “. . . in reality the translator cannot be a transparent, interference-free channel for the author’s thoughts” (xii). Certain words and phrases in the Greek and Hebrew languages cannot be adequately, or necessarily even accurately, rendered with a single English (or whatever language) word. Different translators, working within their own theological and cultural position, will translate these words in accordance with those positions. As an example, Greenspahn argues, regarding Jewish translations of the Bible, that “Jewish renderings are typified by two general features: an attachment to the Hebrew original and a commitment to Jewish tradition” (p. 43). He concludes that the translations are not “neutral renderings of Scripture” but are “profoundly Jewish” (p. 60). Second, because of the non-continuity of meaning from language to language, some of the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic) is lost in translation. Fox gives an example of this problem regarding the Hebrew word for heart (p. 211). Third, no translation is capable of conveying the exact sense and nuance of the original languages. Consequently, no translation is perfect and variety is necessary. If a student or reader of the Bible wants to get a “three-dimensional” understanding of the text, then either multiple translations or familiarity with the original languages become necessary. Fox concludes, “different translations are needed for different purposes” (p. 220), Fourth, differences in the cultural background of the readers will affect translations. Teter points out how a Mongolian translation of the Bible struggled to find equivalents for the flora and fauna of the Bible in the East Asian world (p. 151).

A short review such as this cannot elucidate thoroughly the many subjective issues inherent in the act of translating the Bible, but this volume makes an excellent starting point for detailing case studies regarding this phenomenon. As a teacher of Biblical languages and exegesis, I find this volume refreshing and a powerful reminder of the many complications regarding translation that we need to convey to students and readers of the Bible. Even if those students and readers do not learn the original languages, it would be of considerable benefit for them to become familiar with the issues and principles of translation, as well as some of the basics of linguistics that render each translation subjective.

Paul S. Ash
Reinhardt College